finance

How Britain fell back in love with the railways


On a Friday afternoon in November, in the midst of Britain’s election campaign, Boris Johnson appeared unannounced at the small-town railway station of Thornton-Cleveleys in Lancashire. He did not travel by train.

This coming May will mark the 50th anniversary of the last passengers arriving at Thornton-Cleveleys. It is 21 years since the last freight train trundled wearily through. Yet Johnson was here to say that, if he won the election, all that would change.

He invited a local campaigner and councillor called Brian Crawford on to the track (a little irregular even on a track with no trains) for a private chat and asked what he wanted. Crawford said £100,000 was needed for an initial feasibility study and, lo, Johnson granted his wish.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a general election campaign trail stop at Thornton-Cleveleys railway station in Manchester, Britain November 15, 2019. Frank Augstein/Pool via REUTERS - RC2TBD9GD9RD
Boris Johnson at Thornton-Cleveleys railway station in Lancashire © Reuters

Johnson also told him he wanted this railway to reopen before the next election, due in 2024, and added: “I want to be on the first train.”

Along with a similarly passengerless line in Northumberland, this is one of the railways chosen to spearhead a policy known, for reasons we will come to, as “Reversing Beeching” — at least to the more excitable propagandists and headline writers. The aim was to use the trains, which occupy a unique place in the British psyche, to prove to the disaffected pro-Brexit, anti-metropolitan voters, especially in the north, that Johnson cares about them.

For Fleetwood, it now looks like a commitment: to reopen the abandoned seven-mile stretch that linked the once thriving port via Thornton-Cleveleys to the rest of the railway network at Poulton-le-Fylde. This would enable the town’s inhabitants to travel by train to the main-line junction at Preston and thence, with a few changes, to London, Paris and indeed — if they have the money, time and stamina — practically anywhere on the Eurasian landmass.

This would be a big deal for Fleetwood. The roads in this corner of Lancashire are inadequate. And Fleetwood, just north of Blackpool on the tip of the Fylde peninsula, is one of the most depressed towns in Britain. (Indeed, it has widespread clinical depression.) It is a fishing port with almost no fishermen; an industrial town with almost no industry; and a seaside resort with few holidaymakers. The return of the railway could play a major role in transforming its fortunes by attracting new residents and investors.

Track on the other side of Jameson Road waiting to be cleared. credit Harry Mitchell
A disused railway line across from Jameson Road © Harry Mitchell

On the face of it, this sliver of track is of little interest to the rest of Britain. But this is a symbol of Johnson’s ambition, now that he has a large parliamentary majority and a green signal to steam full speed ahead until 2024. Those who know the prime minister best regard his veracity with disdain. Millions of those who do not know him have put their faith in his promises.

Fylde voted overwhelmingly for Johnson in December. But Fleetwood itself is linked electorally with the university city of Lancaster across the Wyre Estuary. And its pro-Brexit voters, turning right, were narrowly outnumbered at the election by students and pro-Europeans turning left. Labour held the seat.

The MP Cat Smith was campaigning for the return of the railway long before Johnson lit on the place. There has been talk of restoring the line in railway circles since at least 2001.

“It’s short, relatively cheap and easy, and it goes through three constituencies,” says Smith. “It’s a no-brainer, politically speaking.”

Fourteen weeks have already passed since Johnson made his pledge; 250 weeks at most to go. There has only been talk. And the wheels of the reopening process are notorious for grinding exceedingly slow. Is this really possible?

Britain, the early-19th-century epitome of a can-do country, gave railways to the world — and even the French paid homage by making their trains take the left-hand track. At home, the first proper railway opened between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830; less than 25 years later there were 6,000 miles of track — and every significant place in the country had a station.

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The old technology withered: stagecoaches rusted; coaching inns fell silent; the roads and canals were forgotten. Every manufacturer, every farmer, needed to transport their goods by rail or face oblivion. So, if need be, they bankrolled a line themselves. By 1914 there were 20,000 miles, owned by 120 competing companies. Even little Knott End-on-Sea, a ferry ride across the estuary from Fleetwood, had a station, though it lasted only until 1930.

On one level, it was absurd: many lines were lossmakers, if not from day one, when everyone was excited, then at least from day two. But the profusion eventually helped save the nation: if one line was knocked out by second world war bombing, there was always an obscure alternative to move crucial materials. Even before that, however, the roads were back in business, not least because the new road-haulage firms were nimble and could undercut the bureaucratic railways.

Map showing UK's existing rail network and abandoned or disused railways. Railways reached a peak in 1928 with 32,565km of track in operation. By 2019 this figure was 15,847km, a drop of more than 50%

In 1923 the 120 rail firms were forced by government to amalgamate into four; in 1948 they were nationalised. By 1963 some of the more rustic branch lines had already gone and the railways (18,000 miles of them still) were widely regarded as an inefficient relic. Everyone wanted a car and by now they were acquiring them, even in Lancashire. And then it happened. Aside from the Queen, The Beatles and the main players in the Profumo scandal, no name in early 1960s Britain still retains as much resonance as Dr Beeching.

Richard Beeching’s doctorate was in physics but he was a businessman by instinct and profession. He had no expertise or interest in trains, which was probably a plus for Ernest Marples, the transport minister who brought him in from Imperial Chemical Industries at a jaw-dropping salary of £24,000 (it was a long time ago) to chair the railways board and Sort It Out. Beeching could read a balance sheet and knew a mess when he saw it.

Dr Richard Beeching (1913 - 1885) sitting at his desk, soon after his appointment as head of British Rail. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Dr Richard Beeching at his desk, shortly after his appointment as head of British Rail in 1961 © Evening Standard/Getty Images

His report, “The Reshaping of British Railways”, certainly picked up on that — he claimed a third of the route miles carried one per cent of the traffic. The prescription: get rid of these useless lines. And, with a few exceptions, that’s what happened.

Beeching’s plan for the Fleetwood line was not entirely clear. But passenger demand there had been sustained by a regular ferry service to the Isle of Man, which ceased just before the report came out. That was a killer blow, though the trains lingered until 1970, by which time Beeching had left the railways and closures were going out of fashion. It was like being shot just before the ceasefire. Fleetwood’s magnificent and monumental Victorian station was demolished. “We didn’t have a John Betjeman figure to fight for it,” said one local sadly.

But it all fitted with the out-with-the-old mood of the 1960s. There were local grumbles everywhere, but nationally the Beeching report was rapturously received: “Dr Beeching has shown brilliantly how the railways may be made to pay,” said The Times. It was not merely the wrong answer, it was the wrong question.

Governments eventually came to realise that simply totting up the losses from ticket sales was narrow-minded. Though railways were not as essential as they had been, they had all kinds of social benefits. They took traffic off the roads and still spread prosperity and investment. In Fleetwood, meanwhile, the fishing finished and the huge complex belonging to Beeching’s old firm ICI closed down. So there was no goods traffic either. British holidaymakers discovered sunnier climes. Even Blackpool, Britain’s dominant seaside resort, began to bleed. Fleetwood, almost unnoticed, haemorrhaged. (Its most successful industry now is its upwardly mobile football team.)

Poulton and Wyre Railway Society credit Harry Mitchell

Beeching misread the future. He assumed the railways would be a rump business, specialising in freight. He assumed the car and, to some extent, the plane would largely marginalise the passenger train. All this was incorrect: it was freight that collapsed.

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And he certainly cannot have imagined what happened later. The British have always regarded their railways with a mix of affection and contempt, in the manner of an old and dysfunctional married couple. In other countries, redundant lines closed piecemeal and hardly anyone cared. But in Britain most went together and, with them, all the old steam trains.

a sign in the Poulton and Wyre Railway Society credit Harry Mitchell
A sign in the Poulton and Wyre Railway Society © Harry Mitchell

Somehow the silly old railways began to seem like an embodiment of the imagined Arcadian past. Britain has close to 100 “heritage lines”, run mainly by volunteers, offering rides — often pulled by steam engines — on preserved and usually idyllic old branch lines. You might see it as a symptom of the national malaise. The rest of Europe put together has about the same number. It is this nostalgia that has trashed the doctor’s reputation. The young announcer introducing the recent Fleetwood rail story on ITV regional news described Beeching’s report as “notorious” and “infamous”.

When the closures stopped, the 12,000 miles of grown-up railway that remained began to sort themselves out. “By the end of the 1980s, nationalised British Rail was better run than any time before in its history,” says the rail expert Christian Wolmar. I would add that the credit for this might be given to Margaret Thatcher, who cared less about railways even than Beeching. Her distant hot breath helped galvanise the management, but she kept her cold hands off the controls.

However, her successor John Major — needing a follow-up to Thatcher’s successful privatisation programme — opted for the railways. The unbelievably complex system chosen caused chaos — sometimes fatal — for a decade, and constant problems ever since. In many ways, Major created a showcase for all the disadvantages of both private and public enterprise. And the Department for Transport now micromanages the railways more intrusively than ever before. Yet, as the former, much derided secretary of state Chris Grayling reflected recently: “Nobody’s really in charge.”

Usage has doubled in the past 20 years but this is not due to either government or the private train operators, who have little room for manoeuvre. It is social change: more people, more commuters, more students, more grannies darting about to help their children. Still, Britain’s trains have many pluses: they are fast, frequent, mostly punctual-ish and — touch wood — safe. No passenger has been killed in a crash since 2007, an amazing record. But the pricing system is a disgrace, with huge discrepancies in fares to trap the unwary. And the operators, like the airlines, often seem to confuse their passengers with freight — some of the newest trains are appallingly uncomfortable.

Brian Crawford in the Poulton and Wyre Railway Society. credit Harry Mitchell

A minor effect of nobody-in-chargeness is that reopening a closed line or even a single station in England (Scotland and Wales have done far better) has become a Sisyphean task. Dozens of heads must be banged together. Seven miles? Inside five years? The professionals are rolling their eyes.

One characteristic of Boris Johnson is that he has an un-British love of the eye-catching grand projet. His record is not great. As mayor of London, his restoration of the city’s Routemaster buses has been a quietly expensive flop; his Garden Bridge cost a reported £53m (or 530 Fleetwood-style feasibility studies) without being built. As prime minister, his notion of a bridge to Northern Ireland has drawn hysterical laughter from experts.

The more usual British pattern is different. In the case of railways, they are nearly always late, over budget, bodged to cut costs so they are not future-proofed — but vindicated when they arrive, like the high-speed line to the Channel tunnel. The same will probably happen with the planned high-speed line to the north, if any of us live that long. Even Blackpool’s attempt to build a 600-yard link to connect its famous tramway to the main railway station is running two years late.

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And right now the main repository of knowledge about the mysteries of the line to Fleetwood is the Poulton & Wyre Railway Society, the amateur group led by Brian Crawford, Johnson’s confidant on his brief visit. In its 14-year history, its volunteers have done wonders clearing the brambles, prettifying the stations, winning Britain in Bloom awards, trying in vain to persuade Network Rail, the track owner, to allow them to make it a heritage line to add to the hundred others, and sometimes campaigning and praying for a moment like this.

But even its members cannot agree on how to proceed. Most of the line looks serviceable, but just short of Fleetwood, the now clogged A585 road has been built over the trackbed. The alternative route into town is not obvious.

There is, however, another possibility, because Fleetwood does have something looking vaguely like a railway: it is the northern terminus of the Blackpool tram system. It’s not much use to commuters because it takes 40 minutes to do the seven miles into Blackpool (and still doesn’t link to the station).

The tram in Fleetwood turning back to Blackpool. credit Harry Mitchell

But one option, perhaps the most likely, is to use the dual-usage tram-train, now running successfully, though of course belatedly, on the other side of the Pennines, between Sheffield and Rotherham. This uses new technology that enables trams to shift seamlessly on to conventional railway tracks.

Not everyone is enthused. “A tram is just a glorified bus route,” says one volunteer, Pete Williams. “We need a dedicated railway, and personally I think it has to run all the way to Preston.” And just how and where it might link to the tram system is also unclear.

These are matters well below the prime minister’s radar. But Wolmar, no admirer of Johnson politically, is impressed by his daring. “The whole process of reopening railways in Britain has been ludicrous,” he says. “The Swiss say ‘Here’s a town with 30,000 people and it needs to connect to the nearby town of 300,000 people so they can go to work.’ Then it gets built.

Thornton-Cleveleys station. credit Harry Mitchell
The Thornton-Cleveleys station, located on the disused line between Poulton-le-Fylde and Fleetwood in Lancashire © Harry Mitchell
Brian Crawford, chairman of PWRS at Thornton-Cleveleys station credit Harry Mitchell
Brian Crawford, chairman of PWRS at Thornton-Cleveleys station © Harry Mitchell

“Here, we spend ages on cost-benefit analyses, which prove nothing, and ‘making a business case’. Then comes the eight-stage process known as GRIP [Governance for Railway Investment Projects], which takes for ever. Nearly all the reopened railways have exceeded expectations. It’s a political decision. Just go ahead, build 10 and if eight work, then ‘Wow’!”

Eddie Fisher, the society president, is a train driver in real life and wise in the ways of the world. But he too is willing to suspend disbelief. “Five years in the normal run of things is unrealistic,” he says. “However, the government have said they are going to do things differently. And this will be a test of their resolve.”

This is not reversing Beeching, which is impossible. Ten seven-mile lines would reverse about one per cent of Beeching. But this offers some small sign of a new chapter in Britain’s tortured relationship with its railways. Meanwhile, the electoral clock is ticking relentlessly, as it does for every prime minister.

Matthew Engel’s ‘Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain’ is published by Pan Books

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